Building an African identity in the shadow of Empire

Written by: Thomas Poulain

When used as a political tool, identity is associated with the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy. If we assume that the state has to be legitimate, whoever rules must represent the national identity.

Nigeria’s independence, which was declared in 1960, reveals the predominant role identity played in nation-building during decolonization. Before their independence, the imperial rule left little space for the dwellers’ rights: a foreign rule had sovereignty over the people and their territory, which made the state illegitimate. 

Before independence, identity was used as a means to federate a country that did not exist yet against the colonizer. National and sub-national identities were fragmented, some of which were historical, while others appeared during colonial rule. Because of the absence of sovereignty over their own territories, formerly colonized countries were divided by borders drawn for the needs of the colonizer. As a result, people within these borders had to build a state and its political structures within an artificial frame.

The case of Nigeria is particularly interesting for whoever seeks to understand how identity is used as a political tool, because Nigerian identity, a relatively new one, was created before the Nigerian state came into existence. In other words, the need for a national identity came before and for the establishment of political structure, rather than the other way around. Political leaders such as Nnamdi Azikiwe — the first president of Nigeria — promoted specific identities to build new political structures because post-colonial countries inherited territories that were delimited by colonial borders, and not historical territories. 

After independence, Nigeria and other formerly colonized countries had to face challenges that evidently did not exist before colonialism. The world had changed: imperialism brought a newly capitalist system that transformed the social landscape. As a result, an elite emerged that benefited from new systems of production, creating lower classes at the same time. Many African leaders and scholars were western-educated, and thus did not represent the other classes.

From the necessity to build new identities, the debate on tradition questioned the extent to which its legacy should define politicized identities. The role of historical ethnicities was indeed central to the development of new identities. Azikiwe precisely engaged with this debate. He is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Nigeria alongside Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello, the three of which came from three distinct ethnicities, respectively the Igbos, the Yorubas, and the Hausa-Fulanis.

These founding fathers’ discourse oscillated from ‘ethnic politics’ to nationalism, which proves how unclear it was to Nigerian leaders which identities should be asserted. They had to find a compromise between representing both ethnic and national interests, which could not always reconcile. In fact, what ethnicities meant politically had always been uncertain. Claude Ake argues that ethnicities appeared under colonialism; other scholars such as John Lonsdale describe the way ethnicities, which predated colonialism as social groups, were politicized during the said period.

Pan-Africanism, which became more exclusive to Africa after the Second World War, is a good example of an identity that is being made quite artificially in order to build stable political structures. Before complying with the increasing regionalism in Nigeria, Azikiwe fostered Pan-Africanism, which he thought was a means to unite African nations while conserving colonial borders. Other pan-Africanist thinkers had different perspectives over the political implication of this identity. For example, Kwame Nkrumah — the Prime Minister and then President of Ghana from 1957 to 1966 —  believed that traditions should not be used as political tools because they divided ‘Africans’ and the ‘black people, this being the terminology he preferred over ethnic or religious identities. Nkrumah emphasized class struggles and peasants’ rights as opposed to promoting cultural identity referents.

During decolonization, building African identities  —either subnational, national or supranational— was a central instrument towards independence and nation-building, because colonial political structures were not superposed on pre-existing identities and the people were deprived of sovereignty.


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